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5 Teams Aim for the Moon This Year—and the $20 Million Google Lunar XPrize

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The TeamIndus ECA rover. Image Credit: TeamIndus

 
Though space agencies from the Soviet Union, the United States, and China have notched Moon landings, no private company or organization has ever managed to duplicate the task. No private effort has even managed to achieve a launch manifest for a rocket—until now.

The Google Lunar XPrize is a competition to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, have it travel 500 meters, and provide video and imagery of the whole affair. The prize for being first: $20 million. The second-place team gets $5 million, and another $5 million goes to assorted prizes. 

In 2007, more than 30 teams registered to compete for that $30 million. Today, only five remain. Each one has a launch manifest (a scheduled ride) on one of four different rockets. To remain in the competition and win some part of the $30 million bounty, the missions must launch this year.

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPrize, tells mental_floss, “What we are the most excited about is the fact that all five teams are approaching this challenge in unique ways, and we were thrilled to have five finalist teams come from all parts of the world.”

The race is fraught with perils, and despite having been manifested for flight, even reaching the launch pad will require the full measure of each team’s engineering know-how. Still, the Google Lunar XPrize foundation is confident that this is the year. “We are very optimistic that at least one team will launch by the December 31, 2017 deadline,” says Gonzales-Mowrer.

Meet the five teams to learn more about their mission goals and specs.

1. MOON EXPRESS

An illustration of the Moon Express MX-1E lander approaching the lunar surface. Image Credit: Moon Express

 
In 2010, Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Barney Pell formed Moon Express with the goal of applying the Silicon Valley philosophy of moving fast and iterating to the Moon problem. They’ve certainly applied Silicon Valley dollars, garnering $45 million so far in a fundraising effort that goes far beyond the competition. The company intends to establish a resource mining operation on the lunar surface, seeking such elements as oxygen and hydrogen that might be converted to water, breathable air, and used as an oxidizer for spacecraft propellant. Jain has described the Moon as the “eighth continent,” and he certainly has a point: At 37.9 million square miles, the lunar surface is smaller than Asia but larger than Africa.

The mission is set to launch this year atop a New Zealand-built Electron rocket from the company Rocket Lab USA. The Moon Express lander is called MX-1E, and it will perform a powered landing on the lunar surface, using its thrusters to perform a series of “micro hops” to cross the finish line. The spacecraft will be powered with hydrogen peroxide propellant—the same stuff that’s likely in your medicine cabinet, H2O2. Why hydrogen peroxide? Because hydrogen and oxygen harvested from the Moon might one day be able to be refined to fuel a future Moon Express spacecraft.

Such thinking is in keeping with the competition’s long-term goals, explains Gonzales-Mowrer, which includes stimulating "the larger conversation about building a lunar economy and bringing commercial enterprise to the Moon."

2. SPACEIL

An artist's rendition of the SpaceIL combo lander/hopper. Image Credit: SpaceIL

 
Like MoonEx, SpaceIL is no garage operation. The nonprofit organization is fueled by a $36 million budget. Their goal isn’t mineral mining, however, but inspiring an “Apollo effect”—that is spurring a STEM renaissance in Israel, where the company is based. To some extent, the competition is a race to be the fourth nation to plant a flag on the Moon, with Japan and India competing against Israel.

SpaceIL was founded by Eran Privman, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub—a deep bench of electrical and computer engineers. It was the first team in the Google Lunar XPrize to be manifested on a launch vehicle: a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. To travel the 500 meters, their spacecraft, which vaguely resembles a frog, will not roll on tracks or wheels, or skip along gently, but rather will make a single, giant hop to the finish line.

3. SYNERGY MOON

A March 2014 test of an Interorbital Systems Neptune rocket with a Synergy Moon payload aboard. Image Credit: Synergy Moon/Interorbital Systems

 
Led by Nebojsa Stanojevic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 countries are represented on the Synergy Moon team. Their hope is that their success thus far—and hopefully achievements to come—will foster other such cooperative international efforts, and prove what is possible when one approaches the world “with the creative drive of an artist and the problem-solving skills of an engineer,” they say.

Their pair of lunar vehicles are called the Tesla prospector rover and the Tesla surveyor rover. Though Synergy Moon has kept recent details and designs of the rovers close to its chest, in keeping with the artistic and international engagement aspects of the mission, they plan for “tourists, scientists, and prospectors to take control of the rovers for virtual excursions on the Moon,” according to their website. The robots will be launched on a Neptune rocket by Interorbital Systems. Upon arrival at the Moon, a small “tube sat” will deploy from the cruiser to establish communications, and the lander will begin its ascent. Once safely settled in Moon dust, the rovers will get to work, one returning high-resolution images, the other sniffing the lunar regolith for resources for eventual harvest and refinement.

4. TEAM INDUS

Members of TeamIndus with their lander. Image Credit: XPrize Foundation

Last year Team Indus won a $1 million milestone prize for its lander technology—money that has thrust the privately funded team forward in its likelihood of reaching the lunar surface. This is the only team from India, and, like SpaceIL, they hope their mission will be a sort of robotic ambassador for its country that will pay dividends by engaging and invigorating citizens, private industry, and even the Indian government, whose space agency is already making great strides at Mars. Rahul Narayan, a software engineer and entrepreneur from Delhi, is the mission’s leader.

The Team Indus rover ECA—seen at top—has a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy. The vehicle is solar powered, all-aluminum, and has four-wheel drive, and among its scientific payload is a high definition camera made by the French Space Agency. The rover will land autonomously in the Sea of Showers, roll away from the lander platform, link up with Earth, and begin transmitting. It is a straightforward lunar lander and rover—to the extent that it’s possible for any craft operating on the Moon to be described as such.

5. HAKUTO

Hakuto is Japanese for “white rabbit,” and refers to a Japanese story about a rabbit that can be seen in the crater shadows of the moon. The description is apt, too, as the Hakuto rover, shiny and sharp, weighs less than four kilograms, making it the world’s smallest planetary exploration rover.

“To reduce launch cost,” Tomoya Mori of Hakuto tells mental_floss, “we need to make our rover as light and small as possible. At the same time, however, the rover must meet the requirements to successfully accomplish the mission.” They achieved this miniaturization using microrobotics technology and commercial, off-the-shelf products.

Under mission leader Takeshi Hakamada, the mission has forged partnerships with nine players in the aerospace industry, who are assisting with everything from instrumentation to orbital design. Notably, Hakuto will catch a ride to the Moon on the same rocket as Team Indus—an Indian Space Research Organization rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
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Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Weather Watch
Will the Solar Eclipse Have an Impact on the Weather?

The United States will have a front-row seat to one of the most spectacular solar eclipses to sweep across the country in our lifetimes. Millions of lucky observers from coast to coast will have the chance to watch the Moon scoot in front of the Sun on the afternoon of August 21, 2017, briefly plunging cities like Salem, Oregon, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Columbia, South Carolina, into night-like darkness during the day. Read our field guide to the solar eclipse for tips on how to make the most of this spectacular event.

While a solar eclipse can be amazing to behold, the phenomenon has little impact on Earth. It may, however, have a small but noticeable effect on weather in the areas that experience a total eclipse.

The entire country will be able to see the Moon cover the Sun in some form, but the best viewing areas will be along a northwest-to-southeast path across the middle of the country. According to NASA, a location needs at least 90 percent coverage to notice any darkening at all, and even 99 percent coverage of the Sun only provides the same level of darkness you'd see at twilight. Areas totally covered by the Moon's relatively narrow shadow will experience conditions akin to dusk, prompting street lights to turn on and even tricking birds and bugs into thinking that the day is drawing to an end. Studies have shown that the total eclipse could also have an effect on temperatures and even winds.

Researchers who studied an eclipse across Europe in 1999 found that the event lowered air temperatures by as much as 5°F across the path of totality. This brief dip in air temperatures also affected local wind speed and direction—not by much, but it was enough for both people and instruments to take notice of the so-called "eclipse wind." The effect on the atmosphere in Europe wasn't a fluke. A weather station in Zambia recorded a temperature drop of nearly 15°F during a solar eclipse in June 2001, and there are reports through history of observers noticing a distinct cooling effect in the midst of a lunar shadow.

The duration of the eclipse and the amount of moisture in the air will determine how much the Moon's shadow will lower temperatures. Moist air has a higher heat capacity than drier air, so when it's muggy outside it takes longer for the air to warm up and cool down. This is why daily temperatures fluctuate less in Miami, Florida, than they do in Phoenix, Arizona. Communities that lie among the drier, cooler Rocky Mountains are more likely to witness a noteworthy dip in temperatures compared to states like Tennessee or South Carolina, which are typically locked in the humid doldrums of summer at the end of August.

If you're lucky enough to witness this spectacular astronomical phenomenon, make sure you bring your eclipse glasses—and a thermometer.

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